Leung, a former college gymnast who took the reins at USA Gymnastics in February, acknowledged Thursday that the organization had failed Biles, her Olympic teammates and hundreds of others.
“I think historically our organization has silenced our gymnasts, and I am 100 percent supportive of giving our athletes a voice,” Leung told a small group of reporters. “Our athletes should be able to say what they feel and become whole doing so.”
Leung is USA Gymnastics’ third CEO since Steve Penny, who faces felony charges in conjunction with the Nassar scandal, was forced to resign in March 2017. “I understand that we have let down many athletes, have let down Simone, and she needs time to heal from that,” Leung continued. “If voicing her concerns is a way to do that, I am completely supportive of that.”
Biles, 22, who is in Kansas City to contend for a sixth U.S. all-around championship and hone her skills for October’s world championships, spoke frankly Wednesday about the difficulty of competing for USA Gymnastics, which she, as well as a bipartisan Congressional panel, feels was complicit in her abuse by prioritizing gold medals and its public image over athletes’ well-being.
Nassar victims are hardly the only ones to lose faith in the organization.
Deep-pocketed corporate sponsors such as Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Under Armour, Kellogg’s and Hershey’s severed ties in the wake of the scandal, as did Hilton before them. In their absence, the interior of Sprint Center resembles a relative blank canvas for the U.S. championships, with only the event name plastered on signage boards, along with USAG’s logo and small advertising notices for Xfinity and athletic equipment maker AAI.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee expressed its broken faith in November, when it took initial steps to decertify USA Gymnastics, deeming it unfit to govern the sport given the hundreds of lawsuits filed by survivors and its unstable management.
USA Gymnastics responded by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December, a process that consolidated all the lawsuits and paused the de-certification process.
On Thursday, Leung summarized the steps USAG has taken during her five-month tenure to protect and empower athletes going forward and addressed questions about the organization’s financial, legal and governance challenges.
“I understand that the past couple of years have been unsettling, at best,” Leung said at the outset.
To date, Leung said, she has spoken to more than 400 current and former gymnasts, parents, coaches and administrators to better understand the issues abuse victims face and the areas in which USA Gymnastics can do better.
Some victims approached her, she said. Others, such as Biles, have not responded to Leung’s overtures, she confirmed. The two exchanged a brief hello here in Kansas City, Leung said, adding she hoped they could meet for a face-to-face discussion after the current competitive season.
“The last thing I want to do is be a distraction to her during such an important competition,” Leung said.
Leung confirmed none of the Nassar victims have received any financial compensation from USAG to date, although Penny, the executive it forced out for his negligent response, was given a roughly $1 million buyout.
“The process is not a quick one,” Leung said of the mediation, which will be overseen by a Nevada bankruptcy judge. “I would like to resolve this as quickly as possible for everyone’s benefit. I understand that while money doesn’t make them whole, it’s part of the healing process, so I want to be able to help them in the healing process.”
She also confirmed USAG has yet to designate a national training center in advance of Olympic team selection after having severed ties 18 months ago with the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, where much of Nassar’s abuse took place.
Regarding the defection of sponsors, Leung said USAG chose not to solicit corporate support “until we got our house in order,” but that time in coming. Meanwhile, she said, Nike agreed to outfit U.S. gymnasts for competition.
“The board brought me on board to bring in revenue,” Leung said, alluding to her background as an NBA vice president in charge of global partnerships.
In terms of management structure, Leung said USAG has added a handful of new jobs, including a vice president of SafeSport and a vice president of athlete health and wellness “to holistically develop athletes for life.”
USAG has also revised its selection process for major international competitions, such as the Olympics and world championships, to ensure no coach or administrator with a potential conflict of interest has a voice in the decision-making. Moreover, an independent observer from outside gymnastics will be present to ensure the process is fair. The goal, Leung explained, was to remove “the veil of secrecy” from the process. With it, the hope is that it will remove any fear of retribution among gymnasts that might prevent them from reporting an abusive coach.
Regarding decertification, Leung said USAG was working to prove to the USOPC that it was capable of governing the sport by demonstrating leadership stability, shoring up its financial house, taking steps to ensure athletes’ safety and regaining the trust of athletes, the public and corporate America.
The trust piece may prove the most challenging.
In the view of Biles, fellow Olympian Aly Raisman and many other Nassar victims, it’s not a matter of USAG replacing one negligent CEO with someone better or making wholesale change in the composition of its governing board.
Raisman, among the hundreds of litigants, has described USAG as “rotting from the inside.” And Biles made clear Wednesday she is not ready to put full faith in USAG, nor is she confident she ever will.